Goodness can become complicated

Doctor/author Vincent Lam explores that virtue in Giller winner

Donna Bailey Nurse, The Star Phoenix (Saskatoon)
November 25, 2006

When Vincent Lam was growing up in Ottawa in the 1980s, he was crazy about stories. In elementary school, he was the one who sat reading in the playground while the other kids were running around.

"I tried running around," said Lam. "And it was OK. But at that point in my life, reading was much greater. It was something that enlarged the world." His favourite authors were C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl. He also loved the stories his father told on the car trips the family took out East. "He told stories all the way there and all the way back, mostly Chinese folk tales and legends. Except I don't think he stuck to any standard version. It was Dad's version of The Monkey King." In his teens, Lam enrolled in a summer writing workshop at Queen's University. He dreamed of being a writer. But he also wanted to become a doctor. With medical school looming on the horizon, he set writing aside for a while. Besides, Lam had a nagging suspicion he wasn't quite ready to publish, that he hadn't seen enough of the world and had nothing important to say. Medicine would provide him with rich material, he thought, and give him some experience of life.

That was a pretty good plan. Not only did Lam's book Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures win this year's Giller Prize, he has also signed a deal to develop the linked collection about a group of young doctors into a television series.

Lam, an emergency room doctor in Toronto, sounds slightly dumfounded by the sudden rush of acclaim. He is still reeling over his Giller win: "It was one of those moments in your life when you feel as though you are watching yourself. I was completely shocked," he says.

In a manner hardly seen in Canada, Lam's career is speedily acquiring the lustre of legend: There is the story of his chance encounter with Margaret Atwood aboard the Arctic cruise where he worked as ship's doctor; and Atwood's e-mail pronouncement after reading his work: "Congratulations. You can write." And there is his age. At 32, he is the youngest writer to win the prestigious prize, the only one to take it home for a debut effort.

Most of all, there is the aura of romance that attaches to doctors who write -- the allusions to Hosseini and Maugham and Chekhov.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures is about aspiring doctors who learn about themselves and the world through the vicissitudes of medical practice.

As Lam predicted, medicine turns out to be an excellent stage upon which to articulate his ideas about human nature: "It's very complicated to be a good person," he said. "If one starts medicine, like myself, from a fairly naive point of view, with the belief that people want to do good and play by the rules, one quickly realizes that that's not exactly the case." Life-and-death is the easy part: "If someone is about to die, it's very clear what you are supposed to do. But it's very different if someone claims to have some sort of problem you can't verify or disprove. Suddenly, the playing fi eld is very murky. The patient tells me a story and I'm supposed to fi gure out what it means, to put the whole narrative in order. And I'm supposed to make the conclusion happy or less sad." In the stories, Lam delicately examines the pressures facing Chinese medical students, who often struggle to reconcile their family's "traditional expectations and modern ambitions:" "I suspect this is a very common tension in many multicultural countries," said Lam, "although I have not really felt it myself. But I certainly see it in my peers. I think much depends on family backgrounds, the way the family operates. My family doesn't really fi t the high-pressure immigrant thing." Lam was born in London, Ont., in 1974, to Chinese parents from Vietnam, and moved to Ottawa four years later. His father is a career civil servant, his mother an architect. He describes his childhood as happy and uneventful, framed by school and extracurricular activities that, apart from reading, included music and church. He plays violin -- he was a busker in his younger days -- and often accompanied his father, a classically trained violinist, in church duets. Church continues to be an important part of life for Lam, who is married with a toddler son. He says the Bible has infl uenced his work: "It probably does inform my sense of drama and loss and redemption." But, he added, "I could never have managed (any of those themes) without going out into the world and seeing how it all unfolds."

(Special to The Gazette)

Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer.

© The StarPhoenix 2006